Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors


Durrell smiling affectionately at monkey

Gerald Durrell: Most of all he wanted to save
wild animals.

Photo: Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

DURRELL’S FAMILY
of ANIMALS

When he was three, Gerald Durrell's father died in India, and his mother almost died of grief. She took her children back to England, but some years later, at brother Larry's instigation, the whole family decamped for Corfu.

Years later Gerald will wryly describe the scene of the family opening their luggage for Customs inspection:

The contents of our bags were a fair indication of character and interests. Thus Margo's luggage contained a multitude of diaphanous garments, three books on slimming, and a regiment of small bottles each containing some elixir guaranteed to cure acne. Leslie's case held a couple of roll-top pullovers and a pair of trousers which were wrapped round two revolvers, an air-pistol, a book called Be Your Own Gunsmith, and a large bottle of oil that leaked. Larry was accompanied by two trunks of books and a brief-case containing his clothes. Mother's luggage was sensibly divided between clothes and various volumes on cooking and gardening. I travelled with only those items that I thought necessary to relieve the tedium of a long journey: four books on natural history, a butterfly net, a dog, and a jam-jar full of caterpillars all in imminent danger of turning into chrysalides. Thus, by our standards fully equipped, we left the clammy shores of England.

Baby Scops owl with his eyes closed

A Scops owl, his golden eyes closed.
Photo: Justbirds.org

On Corfu, Gerald Durrell lived on an enchanted island, where he watched animals in the wild, and brought them home for further study. Water-snakes appeared in the bathtub, toads settled down in his bedroom, and a scorpion mother and her babies erupted out of the matchbox opened by an unsuspecting brother at a dining table full of guests.

The boy who loves animals

In his account of one of his adventures in My Family and Other Animals, the boy and a Scops owlet stared at each other, "and then the bird, apparently indignant at my ill-mannered laughter at his appearance, dug his tiny claws deeply into my thumb, and I lost my grip on the branch, so that we fell out of the tree together."

The boy carried the indignant owl back home in his pocket, and introduced him to his happily disheveled family, where he was greeted with unqualified approval, and took up residence in a basket in the study. Christened Ulysses, he was fearless, though so small when he arrived that he fit comfortably into a tea-cup. He learned to fly between the table and the door-handle, and spent the day sleeping on the pelmet above the window. Durrell's description of the owl – one of hundreds of animals that swoop and soar, swim and saunter and chuckle in his books – easily evokes both his fascination and his joy in the bird's freedom:

As the sun sank and the geckos started to scuttle about the shadowy walls of the house, Ulysses would wake up. He would yawn delicately, stretch his wings, clean his tail, and then shiver violently so that all his feathers stood out like the petals of a wind-blown chrysanthemum. With great nonchalance he would regurgitate a pellet of undigested food on to the newspaper spread below for this, and other, purposes. Having prepared himself for the night's work, he would utter an experimental 'tywhoo?' to make sure his voice was in trim, and then launch himself on soft wings, to drift round the room as silently as a flake of ash and land on my shoulder. For a short time he would sit there, nibbling my ear, and then he would give himself another shake, put sentiment to one side, and become business-like. He would fly on to the window-sill and give another questioning 'tywhoo?', staring at me with his honey-coloured eyes. This was the signal that he wanted the shutters opened. As soon as I threw them back he would float out through the window, to be silhouetted for a moment against the moon before diving into the dark olive trees. A moment later a loud challenging 'tywhoo! tywhoo!' would ring out, the warning that Ulysses was about to start his hunting.

The boy has begun the quest that as a man will take him to Africa South America, Belize, and Siberia at considerable hazard and expense to himself. All the themes so effervescently present in My Family and Other Animals reemerged in Gerald Durrell's life, the most mysterious and powerful being his love of wild animals.

In Africa with the Fon

In five books recounting his travels, Durrell always describes the country he explored in memorable detail. Here he is heading toward the kingdom of Bafut:

On the dead trees by the side of the road the lizards, orange, blue and black, vied with the pigmy kingfishers over the spiders, locusts and other succulent titbits to be found amongst the purple and white convolvulus flowers. At the bottom of each tiny valley ran a small stream, spanned by a creaking wooden bridge, and as the lorry roared across, great clouds of butterflies rose from the damp earth at the sides of the water and swirled briefly round the bonnet.

. . . gradually, as though we were shedding a thick green coat, the forest started to drop away and the grassland took its place. The gay lizards ran sun-drunk across the road, and flocks of minute finches burst from the undergrowth and drifted across in front of us, their crimson feathering making them look like showers of sparks from some gigantic bonfire. The lorry roared and shuddered, steam blowing up from the radiator, as it made the final violent effort and reached the top of the escarpment. Behind lay the Mamfe forest, in a million shades of green, and before us was the grassland, hundreds of miles of rolling mountains, lying in folds to the farthest dim horizons, gold and green, stroked by cloud shadows, remote and beautiful in the sun. (A Zoo in My Luggage)

The Fon of Bafut – a "rich, clever and charming potentate who ruled over a large grassland kingdom" in the British Cameroons – was Durrell's host. He occasionally exchanged his elaborate robes and skull-cap for a white loincloth and spear and joined Durrell's search for his kingdom's strange and rare creatures. Durrell's hilarious and hair-raising encounters with the Fon, his hunters, and the kingdom's animals are described in The Bafut Beagles.

Durrell began writing books at the instigation of his first wife and to raise money for his expeditions. That he was able to write them was due in part to his sporadic and eccentric home-schooling which had taught him a number of valuable things. From the great Greek scientist, doctor, and philosopher Dr. Theodore Stephanides (who always visited dressed in an immaculate suit adorned with nets, bags, and boxes full of test-tubes) Gerald gained one absolutely vital idea: Keep a journal. Record every experience and animal.

After his third expedition Durrell arrived back in England with a zoo in his luggage, but no where to put the luggage down. He had broken with the zoo community over serious differences about the conservation of wildlife and the collection and care of animals. During the summer months he kept his eagles, hawks, monkeys, snakes, water chevrotains (an antelope the size of a fox-terrier) black-footed mongoose, and dozens of other creatures in a marquee in his sister's garden. But as winter approached and he failed to find a home for them, he began to worry.

The Zoo

He managed to stash his ark in the basement of an emporium as a Christmas show, but this was, understandably, a temporary arrangement. Then his wife mentioned an idea, his book agent suggested a connection, and within one hour of landing on the Channel Island of Jersey, Durrell found the perfect place for his zoo: Les Augres Manor, a beautiful 16th century house. Its owner would like nothing better than to rent it to Durrell and his menagerie. The only drawback as far as Durrell was concerned was that he loathed zoos.

Founded in 1958-59 the Jersey Zoo was small at first, with about 650 mammals, birds and reptiles and thousands of human visitors. It was a zoo with a difference. Durrell opposed the ideas of a hidebound cabal of zoo directors, and took a very different path. His ideas are now so accepted, we forget how radical they were at the time.

First Durrell created a zoo with environments as close to the natural environments of his animals as possible. Second he established his Zoo as a Noah's Ark that will save and breed endangered species which are then returned to the wild. Animals bred at his Zoo include the highland gorilla, the snow leopard, the bespectacled bear, and the golden lion tamarin.

It was and is a herculean task, involving the feeding and care of hundreds of animals, each with their special diets and needs, and requiring major and ceaseless fundraising campaigns. Durrell will learn that help on a project is often not forthcoming until it looked to be a success. So "go ahead," he says, "and accomplish it by yourself." He worked so hard that his first wife packed her bags and left.

His employees stayed because they found Durrell the most ebullient and supportive employer in the world. Their devotion to him and to the cause was passionate. Durrell made it very clear what they were getting into. "Would you be prepared, if need be, to breast feed a baby hedgehog?" he asked a female applicant. (She got the job.)

Animal homelands

Durrell was adept at marshalling resources, but it was an increasingly heart-breaking task as the homelands of wild animals and the animals disappear before the ravages of war, development, over-population and over-hunting. To interest people in preserving animals and wilderness, Durrell founded the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) in 1963. Luckily he had met a young American zoologist and married her in 1979.

Lee continues to promote the cause all over the world and to establish the essential protocols for saving, breeding and reintroducing animals into the wild. “If there is one thing which we have learned in over forty years working to save wild species," says Lee, "it is that conservation action cannot be taken in isolation." Durrell Wildlife is working to save gorillas and chimpanzees in unprotected habitat areas of Cameroon by focusing not only on the needs of the wild animals but on the needs of local people and involving them in the programme.

Durrell has been described, somewhat paradoxically as "a shy bon vivant," an original with a unique vision, a documentary filmmaker, broadcaster, writer, and explorer. His hopeless self-appointed mission to save the world's endangered species sometimes drove him to despair. But Durrell was a pioneer, and, in his own way, as fearless as his scops owl.

Durrell and animal

To learn how to contribute to the protection
of wild animals, see
The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

His legacy survives and grows in strength. In 1978 Durrell started a "mini-university" for conservationists. By 2005, over a thousand biologists, naturalists, zoo veterinarians and architects from 104 countries had trained at his zoo. Thousands more joined the Trust to help. Like Durrell, they are inspired by a passionate affection for the birds and the beasts that are our relatives – perhaps the most interesting relatives we have.

English bulldog puppy

When you contribute to this website,
you support Brits at their Best.

Join the Circle of Friends

 

 

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass